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At a time when all eyes are on the Arctic as both mythic landscape and harbinger of a changing climate, Alaska’s largest museum – the Anchorage Museum – is turning the traditional museum model on its head to help the world know the true story of the North.
What does this mean for museum visitors? It means experiencing exhibitions that pose questions rather than assuming only an authoritative voice – exhibitions that explore contemporary issues by posing questions about the past, the now and the future. The Anchorage Museum presents these through a new wing and re-envisioned history gallery spaces that encourage deeper community engagement.
Building for the future also means expanding museum programs and exhibitions beyond the boundaries of the institution itself. The museum hopes the result will present Northern art, history, science and culture in ways that help people expand perspectives and think critically about the region’s opportunities and challenges.
Part of this renovation and expansion, to be unveiled Sept. 15, involved de-installing a 30-year-old Alaska history gallery and re-envisioning it to include multiple viewpoints and voices, particularly those of Alaska’s indigenous cultures – voices that have historically been stifled.
“It is important to update how we talk about history to involve all voices, including indigenous cultures in Alaska. The way we display objects and the way we include multiple voices and perspectives is vital to telling the stories and history of Alaska,” says Anchorage Museum Director and CEO Julie Decker.
Also important, she says, is to recognize how the past continues to speak to contemporary issues, to look at the changes in Alaska’s population and landscape, and to encourage critical thinking about the North.
“Alaska is a land of contrasts and extremes, a complex social and natural landscape that lends itself to myth and cliché,” says Decker. “The new Alaska exhibition tells the story of Alaska through many perspectives, reflecting the ingenuity, technology, ways of knowing and intimate understanding of the landscape that have allowed people to survive and thrive for centuries across the North.”
Re-envisioning the museum’s history galleries was an interdisciplinary endeavor that brought together curators, conservators, collections experts, archivists, artists, and educators with consultants, scholars, community members, indigenous advisors and museum visitors. Offering visitors evocative experiences within the exhibition was paramount.
“This is not a conservative approach to exhibition design. There was an intentional balance between delivering content and providing an experience,” says Francois Bellehumeur, project director of GSM Project, the Montreal-based exhibition design firm that partnered with the museum on the history gallery. “The museum set a precise and bold vision for this space that challenged us to be creative. Every time we would offer a more evocative design approach, they responded enthusiastically. It was a pleasure working with a client who had a vision to design a space that can evolve over time with room for visitors to have evocative experiences within it.”
“Encounters” is overarching theme of the 12,000-square-foot gallery space, which reflects upon the arrivals and departures of people throughout human history and their interactions with the land and people already here. Thus, instead of perceiving Alaska as a primitive frontier that exists on the northern edge of North America, visitors will look outward to the east and to the west, viewing Alaska as a geological, ecological and cultural bridge that has been affected by and connected to global trends, and to the North, where commonality lies in a circumpolar landscape.
The exhibition is organized by 13 themes reflecting essential aspects of life in Alaska, both today and throughout the state’s rich history. These themes reveal the identity of Alaska and its people. On view are more than 400 objects from the Anchorage Museum’s collections, including several acquired or on loan especially for this new exhibition.
Visitors will experience immersive installations throughout the exhibition with elements of sculpture, video and interactivity, soundscapes, moving images and cinematic narratives with participative moments.
At the heart of the gallery is a central space featuring the people and stories of Alaska through a growing archive of biographies and images. The space is a gathering place and will host artists and performances, school groups, readings, storytelling and special events. Visitors may also explore a complementary gallery for temporary exhibitions related to Northern narratives.
Together, these elements invite visitors to consider for themselves what Alaska really is: what is real, what is myth, and what lives in the space in between. “My hope is that visitors see what an amazing and phenomenal place we live in, are inspired by knowing our history and want to have something to do with shaping our future,” says Anchorage Museum Curator of Alaska History and Culture Aaron Leggett.
Northern, by design
The museum’s recent 31,000-square-foot addition is itself a testimony to the distinctiveness of Alaska and the Arctic. Even the materials used in the architecture of a new wing reflect a sense of place – in this case, Anchorage, Alaska, a Northern city within a sub-Arctic landscape. Windowed galleries overlook the city’s urban and natural surroundings, connecting museum content to the environment it references. The façade is clad in zinc and Alaskan Yellow Cedar, pairing contemporary design sensibility with the materials’ durability and the weathering that defines Alaska’s built environment.
Within the structure, spacious high-ceilinged galleries designed to accommodate both art and people deliver a compelling narrative for the North. Presented in this space are documentary works from expedition artists, Romantic landscapes by 19th and 20th century painters, works by indigenous artists working in a range of media, and contemporary works that speak to today’s landscape. Artworks range from paintings to masks, sculpture, installation and video.
The design for the galleries allows for the presence of daylight, washing the space with ever-changing natural light. Twentieth-century American Romantic painters sought to capture in their paintings this distinctive Alaska light as it filtered through the clouds and reflected in the sky, water and mountains of the Alaska landscape. Tall ceilings, large expanses of white walls and column-less open space are aspirational, hinting at the vastness of Alaska. Here, the indoor world of art and the actual outdoors comment upon each other. And that was the point.
“We were intentional in designing a space with clean lines and open spaces, that offered a respectful palette to a wide range of artworks and reflected our local environment. This museum is one of the most important cultural institutions in the region, and it was important to us that it be appreciated for generations to come,” says John Weir, owner and principal architect at McCool Carlson Green architects in Anchorage, the firm that helped design the museum’s new wing.
In the gallery spaces, continuous heart pine floors, with a chalk finish and outlines of nails in the recycled wood, offer something more earnest and hardworking than pristine surfaces. The effect is intentional, suggesting at the character of Northerners. In the same galleries that present works reflecting the romantic ideal of Alaska are also works by contemporary artists for whom landscape is a place in transition, at risk and altered by man.
Environmental portraiture by Inupiaq artist Brian Adams shows the human and sometimes raw dimension of the Arctic through photographs of daily life in rural Alaska: children playing along an eroding coastline; a candid portrait of an Alaska family taken in a modest living room. The indigenous perspective is a critical part of the North. Museums have long segregated indigenous artwork from other traditional, modern and contemporary works. With this installation, the two are combined into one narrative of the North.
According to Decker, the new wing features representations of the North from the museum’s collection that do more than depict awe-inspiring views and everyday life.
“The overall presentation of art has been curated to pose questions about contemporary issues and to imagine what the future Northern landscape might look like,” says Decker. “The visitor who comes here and sees the art that’s made here will think much more deeply about the landscape and will have a nuanced perception of our place. They will see the romantic view contrasted with a new kind of nostalgia and a new reflection by artists about what the landscape means to human history and the human future.”
Art beyond the walls
Taking art beyond the walls is another way the museum is hoping to cultivate community engagement. An example is an exhibition by photographer John Raymond Mireles. Through a project he calls “Neighbors,” Mireles photographs people up-close, full of character and larger-than-life, traveling from state to state documenting the faces of America. This past spring, Mireles photographed people of Anchorage in neighborhoods throughout the city. The multi-venue presentation at the Anchorage Museum includes images from that project displayed in a museum gallery, on the museum façade, and on outdoor fences in Anchorage neighborhoods. For the museum, it is among the first of many collaborations the museum has planned between artists, designers and communities.
“Art is not one thing, it’s not one idea, isn’t one approach, and it’s not one medium. It’s a lot of different perspectives and to put them together is part of the museum’s philosophy of convening ideas and people around the North,” adds Decker.
The Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center is the largest museum in Alaska, and one of the top 10 most visited attractions in the state. The museum’s mission is to connect people, expand perspectives and encourage global dialogue about the North and its distinct environment.